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  • Written by Curtis Sittenfeld
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A Novel

Written by Curtis SittenfeldAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Curtis Sittenfeld

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On Sale: January 11, 2005
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-450-0
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, Prep, is an insightful, achingly funny coming-of-age story as well as a brilliant dissection of class, race, and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition.

Lee Fiora is an intelligent, observant fourteen-year-old when her father drops her off in front of her dorm at the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. She leaves her animated, affectionate family in South Bend, Indiana, at least in part because of the boarding school’s glossy brochure, in which boys in sweaters chat in front of old brick buildings, girls in kilts hold lacrosse sticks on pristinely mown athletic fields, and everyone sings hymns in chapel.

As Lee soon learns, Ault is a cloistered world of jaded, attractive teenagers who spend summers on Nantucket and speak in their own clever shorthand. Both intimidated and fascinated by her classmates, Lee becomes a shrewd observer of–and, ultimately, a participant in–their rituals and mores. As a scholarship student, she constantly feels like an outsider and is both drawn to and repelled by other loners. By the time she’s a senior, Lee has created a hard-won place for herself at Ault. But when her behavior takes a self-destructive and highly public turn, her carefully crafted identity within the community is shattered.

Ultimately, Lee’s experiences–complicated relationships with teachers; intense friendships with other girls; an all-consuming preoccupation with a classmate who is less than a boyfriend and more than a crush; conflicts with her parents, from whom Lee feels increasingly distant, coalesce into a singular portrait of the painful and thrilling adolescence universal to us all.

BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland.

Excerpt

1. Thieves

Freshman fall

I think that everything, or at least the part of everything that happened to me, started with the Roman architecture mix-up. Ancient History was my first class of the day, occurring after morning chapel and roll call, which was not actually roll call but a series of announcements that took place in an enormous room with twenty-foot-high Palladian windows, rows and rows of desks with hinged tops that you lifted to store your books inside, and mahogany panels on the walls—one for each class since Ault’s founding in 1882—engraved with the name of every person who had graduated from the school. The two senior prefects led roll call, standing at a desk on a platform and calling on the people who’d signed up ahead of time to make announcements. My own desk, assigned alphabetically, was near the platform, and because I didn’t talk to my classmates who sat around me, I spent the lull before roll call listening to the prefects’ exchanges with teachers or other students or each other. The prefects’ names were Henry Thorpe and Gates Medkowski. It was my fourth week at the school, and I didn’t know much about Ault, but I did know that Gates was the first girl in Ault’s history to have been elected prefect.

The teachers’ announcements were straightforward and succinct: Please remember that your adviser request forms are due by noon on Thursday. The students’ announcements were lengthy—the longer roll call was, the shorter first period would be—and filled with double entendres: Boys’ soccer is practicing on Coates Field today, which, if you don’t know where it is, is behind the headmaster’s house, and if you still don’t know where it is, ask Fred. Where are you, Fred? You wanna raise your hand, man? There’s Fred, everyone see Fred? Okay, so Coates Field. And remember—bring your balls.

When the announcements were finished, Henry or Gates pressed a button on the side of the desk, like a doorbell, there was a ringing throughout the schoolhouse, and we all shuffled off to class. In Ancient History, we were making presentations on different topics, and I was one of the students presenting that day. From a library book, I had copied pictures of the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Baths of Diocletian, then glued the pictures onto a piece of poster board and outlined the edges with green and yellow markers. The night before, I’d stood in front of the mirror in the dorm bathroom practicing what I’d say, but then someone had come in, and I’d pretended I was washing my hands and left.

I was third; right before me was Jamie Lorison. Mrs. Van der Hoef had set a podium in the front of the classroom, and Jamie stood behind it, clutching index cards. “It is a tribute to the genius of Roman architects,” he began, “that many of the buildings they designed more than two thousand years ago still exist today for modern peoples to visit and enjoy.”

My heart lurched. The genius of Roman architects was my topic, not Jamie’s. I had difficulty listening as he continued, though certain familiar phrases emerged: the aqueducts, which were built to transport water . . . the Colosseum, originally called the Flavian Amphitheater . . .

Mrs. Van der Hoef was standing to my left, and I leaned toward her and whispered, “Excuse me.”

She seemed not to have heard me.

“Mrs. Van der Hoef?” Then—later, this gesture seemed particularly humiliating—I reached out to touch her forearm. She was wearing a maroon silk dress with a collar and a skinny maroon belt, and I only brushed my fingers against the silk, but she drew back as if I’d pinched her. She glared at me, shook her head, and took several steps away.

“I’d like to pass around some pictures,” I heard Jamie say. He lifted a stack of books from the floor. When he opened them, I saw colored pictures of the same buildings I had copied in black-and-white and stuck to poster board.

Then his presentation ended. Until that day, I had never felt anything about Jamie Lorison, who was red-haired and skinny and breathed loudly, but as I watched him take his seat, a mild, contented expression on his face, I loathed him.

“Lee Fiora, I believe you’re next,” Mrs. Van der Hoef said.

“See, the thing is,” I began, “maybe there’s a problem.”

I could feel my classmates looking at me with growing interest. Ault prided itself on, among other things, its teacher-student ratio, and there were only twelve of us in the class. When all their eyes were on me at once, however, that did not seem like such a small number.

“I just can’t go,” I finally said.

“I beg your pardon?” Mrs. Van der Hoef was in her late fifties, a tall, thin woman with a bony nose. I’d heard that she was the widow of a famous archaeologist, not that any archaeologists were famous to me.

“See, my presentation is—or it was going to be—I thought I was supposed to talk about—but maybe, now that Jamie—”

“You’re not making sense, Miss Fiora,” Mrs. Van der Hoef said. “You need to speak clearly.”

“If I go, I’ll be saying the same thing as Jamie.”

“But you’re presenting on a different topic.”

“Actually, I’m talking about architecture, too.”

She walked to her desk and ran her finger down a piece of paper. I had been looking at her while we spoke, and now that she had turned away, I didn’t know what to do with my eyes. My classmates were still watching me. During the school year so far, I’d spoken in classes only when I was called on, which was not often; the other kids at Ault were enthusiastic about participating. Back in my junior high in South Bend, Indiana, many classes had felt like one-on-one discussions between the teacher and me, while the rest of the students daydreamed or doodled. Here, the fact that I did the reading didn’t distinguish me. In fact, nothing distinguished me. And now, in my most lengthy discourse to date, I was revealing myself to be strange and stupid.

“You’re not presenting on architecture,” Mrs. Van der Hoef said. “You’re presenting on athletics.”

“Athletics?” I repeated. There was no way I’d have volunteered for such a topic.

She thrust the sheet of paper at me, and there was my name, Lee Fiora—Athletics, in her writing, just below James Lorison—Architecture. We’d signed up for topics by raising our hands in class; clearly, she had misunderstood me.

“I could do athletics,” I said uncertainly. “Tomorrow I could do them.”

“Are you suggesting that the students presenting tomorrow have their time reduced on your behalf?”

“No, no, of course not. But maybe a different day, or maybe—I could do it whenever. Just not today. All I’d be able to talk about today is architecture.”

“Then you’ll be talking about architecture. Please use the lectern.”

I stared at her. “But Jamie just went.”

“Miss Fiora, you are wasting class time.”

As I stood and gathered my notebook and poster board, I thought about how coming to Ault had been an enormous error. I would never have friends; the best I’d be able to hope for from my classmates would be pity. It had already been obvious to me that I was different from them, but I’d imagined that I could lie low for a while, getting a sense of them, then reinvent myself in their image. Now I’d been uncovered.

I gripped either side of the podium and looked down at my notes. “One of the most famous examples of Roman architecture is the Colosseum,” I began. “Historians believe that the Colosseum was called the Colosseum because of a large statue of the Colossus of Nero which was located nearby.” I looked up from my notes. The faces of my classmates were neither kind nor unkind, sympathetic nor unsympathetic, engaged nor bored.

“The Colosseum was the site of shows held by the emperor or other aristocrats. The most famous of these shows was—” I paused. Ever since childhood, I have felt the onset of tears in my chin, and, at this moment, it was shaking. But I was not going to cry in front of strangers. “Excuse me,” I said, and I left the classroom.

There was a girls’ bathroom across the hall, but I knew not to go in there because I would be too easy to find. I ducked into the stairwell and hurried down the steps to the first floor and out a side door. Outside it was sunny and cool, and with almost everyone in class, the campus felt pleasantly empty. I jogged toward my dorm. Maybe I would leave altogether: hitchhike to Boston, catch a bus, ride back home to Indiana. Fall in the Midwest would be pretty but not overly pretty—not like in New England, where they called the leaves foliage. Back in South Bend, my younger brothers would be spending the evenings kicking the soccer ball in the backyard and coming in for dinner smelling like boy-sweat; they’d be deciding on their Halloween costumes, and when my father carved the pumpkin, he would hold the knife over his head and stagger toward my brothers with a maniacal expression on his face, and as they ran shrieking into the other room, my mother would say, “Terry, quit scaring them.”

I reached the courtyard. Broussard’s dorm was one of eight on the east side of campus, four boys’ dorms and four girls’ dorms forming a square, with granite benches in the middle. When I looked out the window of my room, I often saw couples using the benches, the boy sitting with his legs spread in front of him, the girl standing between his legs, her hands perhaps set on his shoulders briefly, before she laughed and lifted them. At this moment, only one of the benches was occupied. A girl in cowboy boots and a long skirt lay on her back, one knee propped up in a triangle, one arm slung over her eyes.

As I passed, she lifted her arm. It was Gates Medkowski. “Hey,” she said.

We almost made eye contact, but then we didn’t. It made me unsure of whether she was addressing me, which was an uncertainty I often felt when spoken to. I kept walking.

“Hey,” she said again. “Who do you think I’m talking to? We’re the only ones here.” But her voice was kind; she wasn’t making fun of me.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Are you a freshman?”

I nodded.

“Are you going to your dorm right now?”

I nodded again.

“I assume you don’t know this, but you’re not allowed in the dorm during classes.” She swung her legs around, righting herself. “None of us are,” she said. “For Byzantine reasons that I wouldn’t even try to guess at. Seniors are allowed to roam, but roaming only means outside, the library, or the mail room, so that’s a joke.”

I said nothing.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said and began to cry.

“Oh God,” Gates said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Here, come sit down.” She was patting the bench beside her, and then she stood, walked toward me, set one arm around my back—my shoulders were heaving—and guided me toward the bench. When we were sitting, she passed me a blue bandanna that smelled of incense; even through the blur of my tears, I was interested by the fact that she carried this accessory. I hesitated to blow my nose—my snot would be on Gates Medkowski’s bandanna—but my whole face seemed to be leaking.

“What’s your name?” she said.

“Lee.” My voice was high and shaky.

“So what’s wrong? Why aren’t you in class or study hall?”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

She laughed. “For some reason, I don’t think that’s true.”

When I told her what had happened, she said, “Van der Hoef likes to come off like the dragon lady. God knows why. Maybe it’s menopause. But she’s actually pretty nice most of the time.”

“I don’t think she likes me.”

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s still so early in the school year. She’ll have forgotten all about this by November.”

“But I left in the middle of class,” I said.

Gates waved one hand through the air. “Don’t even think about it,” she said. “The teachers here have seen everything. We imagine ourselves as distinct entities, but in their eyes, we merge into a great mass of adolescent neediness. You know what I mean?”

I nodded, though I was pretty sure I had no idea; I’d never heard someone close to my own age talk the way she was talking.

“Ault can be a tough place,” she said. “Especially at first.”

At this, I felt a new rush of tears. She knew. I blinked several times.

“It’s like that for everyone,” she said.

I looked at her, and, as I did, I realized for the first time that she was very attractive: not pretty exactly, but striking, or maybe handsome. She was nearly six feet tall and had pale skin, fine features, eyes of such a washed-out blue they were almost gray, and a massive amount of long light brown hair that was a rough texture and unevenly cut; in places, in the sunlight, there were glints of gold in it. As we’d been talking, she’d pulled it into a high, loose bun with shorter pieces of hair falling around her face. In my own experience, creating such a perfectly messy bun required a good fifteen minutes of maneuvering before a mirror. But everything about Gates seemed effortless. “I’m from Idaho, and I was the biggest hayseed when I got here,” she was saying. “I practically arrived on a tractor.”

“I’m from Indiana,” I said.

“See, you must be way cooler than I was because at least Indiana is closer to the East Coast than Idaho.”

“But people here have been to Idaho. They ski there.” I knew this because Dede Schwartz, one of my two roommates, kept on her desk a framed picture of her family standing on a snowy slope, wearing sunglasses and holding poles. When I’d asked her where it was taken, she’d said Sun Valley, and when I’d looked up Sun Valley in my atlas, I’d learned it was in Idaho.

“True,” Gates said. “But I’m not from the mountains. Anyway, the important thing to remember about Ault is why you applied in the first place. It was for the academics, right? I don’t know where you were before, but Ault beats the hell out of the public high school in my town. As for the politics here, what can you do? There’s a lot of posturing, but it’s all kind of meaningless.”

I wasn’t certain what she meant by posturing—it made me think of a row of girls in long white nightgowns, standing up very straight and balancing hardcover books on their heads.

Gates looked at her watch, a man’s sports watch with black plastic straps. “Listen,” she said. “I better get going. I have Greek second period. What’s your next class?”

“Algebra. But I left my backpack in Ancient History.”

“Just grab it when the bell rings. Don’t worry about talking to Van der Hoef. You can sort things out with her later, after you’ve both cooled off.”

She stood, and I stood, too. We started walking back toward the schoolhouse—it seemed I was not returning to South Bend after all, at least not today. We passed the roll call room, which during the school day functioned as the study hall. I wondered if any of the students were looking out the window, watching me walk with Gates Medkowski.


From the Hardcover edition.
Curtis Sittenfeld|Author Q&A

About Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld - Prep

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of American Wife, The Man of My Dreams and Prep, which was chosen by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2005. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon, Allure, Glamour, and on public radio’s This American Life. Her books are being translated into twenty-five languages. Visit her website at www.curtissittenfeld.com.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld

Katie Bacon is an editor for The Atlantic Monthly. This interview originally
appeared on The Atlantic Online (www.theatlantic.com). (Copyright
© 2005 The Atlantic Monthly Group).

Katie Bacon: What has this experience been like for you? Did you
expect Prep to take off in the way it has? It’s really become a phenomenon
of sorts.

Curtis Sittenfeld: I would say the short answer is no, I didn’t expect
this. But at the same time, when I would talk to my editor and publicists
at Random House in the months before publication, they were always
really excited and enthusiastic. So I always thought that if it wasn’t
a bestseller they might be disappointed. I didn’t necessarily think it
would be, but I thought they kind of expected it. But then, as the book
started to sell well and did become a bestseller, they would say things
to me like, “Isn’t this great?” “Can you believe it?” “I can’t believe it.”
And I thought, You can’t believe it!? But didn’t you assume this would
happen, and didn’t you make it happen?
You used the word “phenomenon,” and I think that if I knew someone
who had written a book and then things had unfolded this way, I
would probably think, Oh, you must be so excited all the time! You must
be so swept up in everything.
I do feel really lucky, but my life is not that
different. One big difference is obviously that in the past I’ve conducted
these interviews and now I’m giving one. But in a weird way, it
kind of takes up the same time. And because I’ve worked as a freelancer,
I’ve had the experience of going to a newsstand and buying a
paper or magazine and having my name in it. This is sort of a different
version of something that I’m familiar with. Probably a year from now
I’ll look back and think, Oh, that was exciting. But right now it’s not as
if I’m walking around winking at myself in mirrors.

KB: In coming up with these questions, I went back and looked at
some of your interviews just to see the types of things that you’d asked.
And I found a quote which I thought was funny, given the coverage
that you’ve gotten. In your interview with Tobias Wolff, you said,
“Among writers, it’s a faux pas to ask if a work of fiction is true, and it’s
also the first question that nonwriters ask. Does the question bother
you?” Could I ask you the same thing you asked Wolff?

CS: No, it doesn’t bother me. It certainly doesn’t offend me, because I
think it’s a really natural question, and it’s something I often wonder
when I read fiction. But there can be different subtexts to the question;
some of them are sort of flattering and some are sort of insulting. It can
mean something like, “I was so enthralled by this, and the characters
seemed so real—I just can’t believe that anyone could have made it
up.” That’s a compliment. Or, in my case specifically, it can mean
something like, “I know you went to boarding school in Massachusetts;
I know you’re from the Midwest. Clearly this is all true, you lack an
imagination, and you’re a lazy writer.” In my opinion, whether a novel
succeeds or fails doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s true.
It’s all in the execution. If you can get something down on the page
that’s interesting, it doesn’t matter how much you borrow from real life.
It’s not like the more you borrow, the less skilled you are.
I also think it’s a question that’s almost unanswerable, because in a
way whenever someone asks you how much is true, what they’re really
saying is, I assume a great deal of it is true. So your response doesn’t
really matter, and the more you say, the more defensive you sound.

KB: I’d like to talk a bit about literary fiction. Your book is considered
literary, yet it’s also a page-turner in a way that reminds me of some of
the books I’ve read that have no literary pretenses. Do you think there’s
a movement away from fiction that’s self-consciously literary toward
work that’s just more readable?

CS: One thing I learned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from Ethan
Canin, was how to think about structure. I consider plot above everything
else except character. There’s nothing I hate more than some
book that’s all just exquisite language. That’s so boring. I want there to
be forward momentum, so I take it as a really big compliment if someone
says Prep is a page-turner. Frank Conroy, at Iowa, would say, “Writing
fiction is this combination of knowing what you’re doing and not
knowing what you’re doing.” I very consciously think about plot and
say, I want there to be a twist here or I want there to be a surprise. In fiction
I love surprises that are genuinely surprising and that feel plausible,
too. I don’t know if I’m part of some larger movement. I doubt it. I
think it’s probably just something that some people think about and
some people don’t. But I know a lot of writers who seem to feel like
every word has to be a little gem and every paragraph has to be perfect
before they can move on to the next paragraph. I certainly revise a lot,
but I believe that the sum of the parts is what matters the most.

KB: Obviously the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had a big effect on you in
terms of your thoughts on plot and in giving you the space to write this
book, but did it change you as a writer? Would you have written this
book if you hadn’t gone there?

CS: I don’t know if I would have. I think while at Iowa I learned to be
harder on myself as a writer. When I arrived there, I would write a story
and if I finished it I would be glad. If it read well or read smoothly, and
if I’d thought of some clever turns of phrase, I would almost feel like,
Well, that’s enough. But you’re kind of discouraged from cleverness at
Iowa, thank God. I think that if you have a certain facility with language
it’s very tempting to show it off. But that can backfire in terms of
alienating the reader. There’s only so much cleverness that anyone can
take, and ultimately the reason someone wants to finish a book is because
that person feels invested in the characters and wants to know
what happens to them. I do feel that at Iowa I learned to write more sincerely
instead of preening on the page.

I’m very pro-MFA. I know other people have mixed feelings about
this type of program. But I think, among other things, that it puts you
on this path where writing can be the center of your life. Even if writing
isn’t the bulk of what you spend your time doing, getting an MFA
affirms writing as a really big priority for you. It can help you feel okay
about the fact that your income might be a lot lower than that of everyone
else you know. And if you choose to write a novel, I think that you
have more of a support structure in place and more patterns of how to
spend your time.

KB: You manage to make the minutiae of prep-school, adolescent life—
the obsession with who gets how many Valentine’s Day flowers, or how
the cool girls wear their hair—interesting to an adult audience. This is
no small feat, given that you’re writing about a time of life when people
tend to be self-centered, and that these adolescents populate a world
that’s more insular than most. Who were you imagining as your audience
for this? What are the challenges of writing about an adolescent’s
world in a way that would be gripping to an adult audience?

CS: Well, this might sound very self-centered, but in a way I think I’m
writing for myself. I’m writing the kind of book that I would like to
read. Also, not everyone picks up on the fact that the story is actually
told from Lee’s point of view when she’s in her late twenties. That’s because
I hate most books that are from a child’s point of view. I passionately
hate them. I know this is a very big generalization, but I just have
to make it. I hate when you can feel that the character is much less intelligent
than the author who created that character. In my own writing,
and I am sure I don’t always succeed, I am trying to avoid the
things I don’t like in books and include the things that I do. I always
like a little romance in a book. I like narrators who are at least a little
neurotic and who want things and are driven by their wants. And I sort
of assume that other people share my tastes.


KB: A friend happened to mention this quote to me the other day
while I was reading your book, and I was wondering what you would
think of it. It’s from a commencement address given by Meryl Streep.
She said, “You have been told that real life is not like college and you
have been correctly informed. Real life is more like high school.” Does
that hold any truth to you? How much does the Darwinian social structure
of high school carry over into the real world?

CS: For me, post–high school life has not been that much like high
school. The biggest thing that’s missing is the intensity. There’s this
trade-off where you think, Thank God everything doesn’t matter as
much to you as it did then. But then you also miss feeling that sense of
excitement. I think it’s sort of like having a crush, where you’re kind of
tormented but also entertained. All things considered, though, I prefer
adulthood. I’m not someone who yearns for high school. I just feel like
you have so little autonomy in terms of how you spend your time. I
don’t like being told what to do by other people.

KB: The fascination you were talking about with that time and the
drama of it, do you think that’s true of high school in general, or do you
think it’s specifically true of the kind of high school that you went to
and that you’re writing about in Prep?

CS: I think a lot of people had very intense feelings in high school—
more people than not. I think there are some people who might feel
like they weren’t intellectually stimulated in high school, and so they’re
happy to leave it behind. But at most boarding schools that intellectual
stimulation does exist. There’s no ingredient that’s needed to
make life engaging or exciting that is missing from an elite boarding
school. You’re in a beautiful place, you’re with tons of people your own
age, there are plenty of romantic prospects, you’re intellectually stimulated,
you’re physically active. And of course there’s a good chance
you’re miserable on top of all that. But you can sort of feel that your
happiness exists somewhere in the air. Maybe that’s what it is: that in
high school you can feel the potential of your happiness, whereas when
you’re an adult, your life is what it is.

KB: Lee is, at times, a complicated character to like—she’s so painfully
self-conscious, so cynical, and she always seems to be doing or saying
the wrong thing. Could you talk about writing a book with a main character
who is not always appealing? Did you worry about alienating the
reader?
CS: Well, I’ve always known that some readers aren’t crazy about her,
because I got that feedback very early on at Iowa. I’ve been very lucky
in terms of the quantity and the general tone of coverage for Prep, but
it certainly hasn’t been unequivocally positive. And some of it does
sting. At the same time, nobody has ever said anything that’s totally unfamiliar
to me. Every kind of feedback that I could get, I got for the first
time long ago, so I knew that people didn’t always find Lee likable, and
I didn’t try to change that. I feel that, one, she’s not really trying to present herself as likable,
and to me, having a character be honest actually makes up for a lot.
And two, when people say that she’s not always appealing, I think, My
God, who is?
I don’t know anybody—except maybe my mother—who
is always perky and agreeable. So in that way, I think Lee is realistic. At
the same time, I don’t like to read a story, let alone an entire book,
where I really don’t like the main character. So if someone feels like
they hate Lee and can’t take it anymore, they should probably quit
reading. Reading Prep is not meant to be punishment.
I think probably the most loaded and severe criticism of Lee is that
she’s kind of racist. And I would say that’s true in the way of a white
fourteen-year-old who’s grown up in Indiana and just hasn’t met a ton
of people who are different from her, let alone lived closely with them.
But I think a lot of her biases are disproved while she’s at Ault. People
have asked me, Does she change? I think she does.

KB: I read somewhere that you didn’t let your parents read the book
until more than a year after it had sold. Why did it take you so long to
show it to them?

CS: Well, I just thought that it wouldn’t be my parents’ cup of tea. My
mother prefers biographies, and my father likes writing that I think is a
little schmaltzier. So I literally thought it wouldn’t be a book that they
would choose to read if it hadn’t been written by their daughter. And,
in my mind, the fact that I did write it would only make it more weird
and complicated for them. They would think, Is this true? Did this happen
to Curtis? This does seem like Curtis, but this doesn’t.
I think it’s just
so loaded to read a book written by your own child. The parents in the
book are not my parents, though there are a few lines that the parents
say that my parents would say. But the funny thing was that when my
dad read it, he didn’t identify with the father at all. I thought—even
though I knew the father wasn’t based on him—that because I’m me
and I went to boarding school and he’s my father and there’s a father in
the book, it would be very natural for him to compare himself. But he
actually identified very strongly with Lee. I think it kind of stressed him
out to read the book, and he had to hurry through it because he felt so
anxious. But I don’t think my mother identified with Lee at all. My
mother thought—they both thought—it would have been a better
book without the last chapter. I think they thought the last chapter was
unnecessarily graphic.

KB: The sex scenes are fairly explicit. It must have been a hard thing to
know that your parents were going to read them.

CS: I think it’s one of those things that as you’re writing you can’t think
about. It would just be paralyzing. There are plenty of cases where if I
had known the level of scrutiny the book would receive I might have
done things differently. As I was writing the book, I knew people would
wonder, Is this true? But I didn’t want that to determine how I wrote it.
And I didn’t want to write the book in such a way that I hoped it would
reflect flatteringly on me. I didn’t want to write a book where my main
goal was to make people think that I, the author, was a charming person.
I wanted to do what I felt was in the book’s best interest, not in my
own best interest.

KB: In an article about you in The Washington Post, the author commented,
“Beyond the setting of Prep, the novel is more deeply about
the universal experience of being a teenager, and about learning to
let go of the weirdness, the damage of having been one.” Do you
get the sense that reading this book has been cathartic for people at
all?

CS: Yes, definitely. Probably the nicest part of having the book come
out is people saying, “I identify with this so strongly.” I’ve heard this
from people who are fifty and people who are still in high school, from
men and from women. Because Lee is the narrator of the book, the
reader gets to know her every neurosis. But if you went to school with
her, I think she would seem like a somewhat quiet, peripheral person.
I think a lot of people see themselves in her. During high school they
may have seemed perfectly normal from the outside, but so much was
whirling around in their heads.

KB: Years ago, in 1995, you worked at The Atlantic as an intern. Did
working here and reading so much of the fiction that comes in over the
transom have any effect on your own writing?

CS: Well, I started submitting fiction to magazines when I was still in
college, when I was in high school even. And sometimes I would feel
kind of apologetic about doing it, or I’d feel kind of embarrassed for myself,
especially after something was rejected. And, quite honestly, when
I interned at The Atlantic, reading some of the submissions made me
think, I have nothing to apologize for. There’s some stuff that’s really
good, and there’s a lot of stuff that falls in between, but there’s plenty of
stuff that is absolutely atrocious. And the people seem to feel no hesitation
about burdening you with it. This was important for me to learn,
because it helped me feel comfortable sending things out. I once
read an interview, I think it was with Kevin Smith—who made Clerks,
among other movies—and the interviewer asked, Why aren’t there
more young female filmmakers? And Smith basically said that men
don’t feel reluctant to learn publicly and make mistakes and make
flawed movies that then help them to make better movies. Whereas
women almost don’t want to burden people with a flawed product. And
I do feel like there’s something to be said for not protecting other
people too much from your imperfections. How else are you going to
learn? I don’t think that you can learn to write a book except by writing
a book. And then of course it’s going to be imperfect. I could look at
Prep and feel like there are a lot of things wrong with it. But, ideally, I
won’t make the same mistakes again.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Curtis Sittenfeld is a young writer with a crazy amount of talent. Her sharp and economical prose reminds us of Joan Didion and Tobias Wolff. Like them, she has a sly and potent wit, which cuts unexpectedly–but often–through the placid surface of her prose. Her voice is strong and clear, her moral compass steady; I’d believe anything she told me.”
Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

“Speaking in a voice as authentic as Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and McCullers’ Mick Kelly, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Lee Fiora tells unsugared truths about adolescence, alienation, and the sociology of privilege. Prep’s every sentence rings true. Sittenfeld is a rising star.”
Wally Lamb, author of She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True

“In her deeply involving first novel, Curtis Sittenfeld invites us inside the fearsome echo chamber of adolescent self-consciousness. But Prep is more than a coming of age story–it’s a study of social class in America, and Sittenfeld renders it with astonishing deftness and clarity.”
Jennifer Egan, author of Look at Me

“Sittenfeld ensconces the reader deep in the world of the Ault School and the churning mind of Lee Fiora (a teenager as complex and nuanced as those of Salinger), capturing every vicissitude of her life with the precision of a brilliant documentary and the delicacy and strength of a poem.”
Thisbe Nissen, author of Osprey Island

“Open Prep and you’ll travel back in time: Sittenfeld’s novel is funny, smart, poignant, and tightly woven together, with a very appealing sense of melancholy.”
Jill A. Davis, author of Girls’ Poker Night

“Prep does something considerable in the realm of discussing class in American culture. The ethnography on adolescence is done in pitch-perfect detail. Stunning and lucid.”
Matthew Klam, author of Sam the Cat

Funny, excruciatingly honest, improbably sexy, and studded with hard-won, eccentric wisdom about high school, heartbreak, and social privilege. One of the most impressive debut novels in recent memory.”
Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and Election


From the Hardcover edition.

Awards

WINNER 2006 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. How does Prep differ from other books about teenagers you’ve read?
Reviews have cited the book as an unsentimental view of high
school and adolescence—do you agree? How does Lee Fiora’s point
of view relate to your own high school experience?

2. Throughout the novel, Lee describes herself as an outsider, partly
because of her scholarship-student status. How does Sittenfeld develop
this theme of fitting in racially and financially? What kind
of difficulties, both overt and subtle, do Little, Sin-Jun, Darden, and
other minority students encounter at Ault, and how does their outsider
status differ from Lee’s?

3. How does the school-wide game of Assassin temporarily transform
Lee? How do her interactions with her classmates during this game
empower her? Explore her guilt in “killing” McGrath.

4. Many readers and reviewers of Prep have described Lee as a passive
character. When is Lee submissive, and when does she act on her
desires, even if subconsciously? Does her level of assertion change
by the end of the novel?

5. Lee experiences friction with her parents when they visit Ault for
Parents’ Weekend. How has her relationship with them changed
since she left for boarding school? Her father states, “When you
started at Ault . . . I said to myself, I’ll bet there are a lot of kids
who’d think real highly of themselves going to a place like that.
And I thought, but I’m glad Lee has a good head on her shoulders.
Well, I was wrong. I’ll say that now. We made a mistake to let you
go” (202). Do you think Lee has changed in the way her father
claims she has?

6. Many reviewers have mentioned that Prep feels autobiographical
and reads like a memoir, but Sittenfeld denies that her novel
closely follows her life. Why, then, do you think Prep comes across
as so authentic and personal?

7. Is Angela Varizi, The New York Times reporter who interviews Lee,
manipulative in her interview? Do you think Lee intended, even if
subconsciously, to give a negative picture of Ault?

8. During Lee’s final conversation with Cross Sugarman, he tells her,
“You’ll be happier in college. . . . I think it’s good you’re going to a
big school, somewhere less conformist than Ault” (380). Why does
Cross think this, and do you agree with him? How do you envision
Lee changing after high school?

9. Reviewers have compared Sittenfeld to other authors in the boardingschool-
novel genre, including J. D. Salinger, John Knowles, and
Tobias Wolff. How does Prep differ from those other novels? How
does a female perspective affect Prep?

10. How does Lee’s adolescence compare to your own? Which of her
high school experiences resonate with you most?


  • Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • November 22, 2005
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $16.00
  • 9780812972351

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